Vol. 15 No. 5 · 11 March 1993

Search by issue:

The Divine Miss P

Elaine Showalter’s review of my new book, Sex, Art and American Culture, was generally fair and accurate in its detailed overview of my career (LRB, 11 February). However, her account of my appearance in December at her own institution, Princeton University, is a dismaying collage of distortions, malice and wishful fantasy.

I have never in fact been invited to lecture at Princeton, partly because of the solipsistic insularity of the feminist establishment that Elaine Showalter represents. I was not giving a lecture at Princeton on the day in question. I had been invited by Alisa Bellettini, producer of MTV’s House of Style, to sit on a 40-minute panel with her, supermodel Cindy Crawford and Linda Wells, founder and editor-in-chief of Allure magazine, to help defend them against the insane feminist charge (obsessively pushed by one-note Naomi Wolf) that the fashion industry causes anorexia.

As one of four panelists focused on a single issue, I could hardly jump to my feet, take over the occasion, and regale the audience with my usual Joan-Rivers-meets-Jane-Harrison comic monologue. Had I done so, I expect Professor Showalter would have used that as evidence of my dreadful selfishness and daffy narcissism. Here, as in her books, she shows her inability to read simple cultural symbolism. At Princeton I was dressed in casual butch blue jeans, rather than my usual ultra-femme, high-maquillage, Auntie Mame performance drag, to signal that I was not the central focus: Cindy Crawford was. It was for the gorgeous, willowy Crawford, not me, that the huge crowd paid a $5 entrance fee.

I suggest that Professor Showalter, who was clearly stung by the respectful coverage my attendance at the conference received before and after the event in the New York Times and New Jersey newspapers on and off campus, should concentrate her energies on the deplorable condition of Princeton education. We visitors were shocked at the mediocrity and inarticulateness of most of the student questioners, who seemed to have no command even of syntax, much less thought, aside from their parroting of passé feminist clichés. Ivy League education in the humanities is obviously in the pits.

In conclusion, Professor Showalter tries to make a grand point of my refusal to ‘debate’ other academic feminists – as if I had ever been invited by anyone anywhere in the country to such a debate (except for a Madonna panel at this student-organised conference). The unpleasant truth is that the American feminist establishment categorically refused to read my book or to take me or my ideas seriously until now, three full years after the release of Sexual Personae.

I’m afraid it’s too late, ladies. You have abundantly shown your true character, in all its vicious, Kremlin-walled Stalinism. The reform movement that I helped launch is at your gates. Your desire for debate is touching, even pathetic. But the time for negotiations is long past. History has moved on and left you behind.

Camille Paglia
University of the Arts, Philadelphia

Elaine Showalter writes: Incredible as it may seem to Camille Paglia and her clipping service, I missed the coverage of her Princeton appearance in the New York and New Jersey media, apart from the pre- and post-conference stories in the university newspapers. But I did attend her panel discussion, and my description of her comments and behaviour is accurate. As she parenthetically acknowledges, Paglia was originally invited by the student conference organisers to appear on a panel about Madonna with Professor Carol Cook of the English Department. However, she refused to participate in a discussion with Cook or any other feminist professor.

The Daily Princetonian reporter, Howard Gertler, gave the following account of the occasion: ‘The question-and-answer session turned confrontational when Cook attempted to ask Paglia why she refused to appear with other academic feminists. Paglia cut off Cook several times, finally stating: “There is no academic feminist I consider of my league, okay?" Cook responded, “You are a sadly deluded woman," before returning to her seat.’ At a subsequent press conference, Gertler reported, ‘Paglia’s temper flared again … when she shoved a photographer whom she had warned just moments before not to take a flash picture. “I said no flash, asshole … I’m not Cindy Crawford, I’m an academic talking ideas here," Paglia said’ (Daily Princetonian, 7 December 1992).

Readers can draw their own conclusions about Paglia’s motives with regard to debate. For myself, although I was prepared to hear her freewheeling attacks on Naomi Wolf and Princeton women faculty, I was surprised by the way she publicly belittled and insulted undergraduates who persisted in asking their questions with courtesy and dignity despite her heckling interruptions. While Cindy Crawford was obviously a major attraction (I watched two male students rush to the podium after the discussion to capture her water glass), an equal amount of publicity and most of the questions were addressed to Paglia.

The Paris Strangler

Further to the discussion as to why Althusser killed his wife (Letters, 11 February) there are two additional theories now receiving attention. One is that he could not bear to think that she was actively preparing to leave him. While his mentally depressive condition was important, his act nevertheless becomes a more ordinary crime of jealousy and passion. The other arises from the fact that they both attended the same psychoanalyst. Althusser supposedly became obsessed with the idea that his wife was betraying him by having secret conversations with the analyst.

I think that there is a simpler explanation. When Althusser stayed with me in London in 1978, I discovered that he was a sleep-walker. He was not apparently depressed at this time. Indeed he saw himself as having a great role in the revolutionary world of the future. But his sleep-walking was persistent. It is not unknown for people to commit murder at such times. Perhaps this is the moment for me to say how I always found Althusser to be a gentle and kind man. He was most helpful to me when we were students in Paris and he was a good friend for many subsequent years.

Douglas Johnson
London NW3

Unfaithful to Wagner

I am writing in response to Professor Edward Said’s review of my father’s book, Wagner: Race and Revolution (LRB, 11 February). Professor Said has made a number of factual mistakes, as well as some rather excited accusations. First, Paul Lawrence Rose is not at Haifa University – he is currently based at Pennsylvania State University, following his move from the University of Toronto. Said finds it difficult to keep his emotional outbursts in check. He accuses Rose of endorsing ‘both the Iranian (and other Muslim) authorities who wish to ban The Satanic Verses, and those many historical victims of Western culture who advocate expunging Dead White Males and their views from academic curricula’. This amateurish attempt at portraying Professor Rose as a narrow-minded, censorious, politically-correct academic only illustrates more clearly Said’s worrying propensity to resort to name-calling and other childish games.

Said expresses concern for my father’s ‘tragic legacy as a survivor of the Holocaust’, and describes him as being an Israeli. In fact, and unfortunately for Said’s argument, Rose was born in Britain. Said just cannot keep himself from indulging in tub-thumping exercises on behalf of the Palestinians, even in a review ostensibly about Wagner. By asserting that Rose is an Israeli with an obsessive hatred of Germany, Edward Said is trying to equate Israel’s treatment of Palestinians with Nazi genocidal policies. As he says, ‘every Zionist leader of the Left, Right or Centre … was in favour of ridding Palestine of Palestinians, by all means necessary, force and bribery included.’ Said thus implies that Israel plans the systematic extermination or expulsion of its minorities by a method similar to that of the Nazis. Said criticises Wagner: Race and Revolution as ‘all too easily [collapsing] art, history, genocide into each other’. Perhaps Edward Said could heed his own advice.

Alexander Rose
Magdalene College, Cambridge

Blake’s Tone

I was present when Leavis delivered his lecture on Blake at a conference in York and I asked him if he would not allow that The Marriage of Heaven and Hell was an artistic success (Letters, 25 February). He agreed, but continued to dismiss all the other prophetic books. This shocked me. In 1930 John Masefield had arranged a celebration of Blake in his Boar’s Hill Music Room. It included a performance of The Ghost of Abel and a dramatic recital of the last section of Jerusalem, in both of which I was lucky to take part. To everyone’s surprise the latter was a great success and the audience found it as comprehensible as the Bible to which it owes so much.

Kenneth Muir

White Ties v. White Coats

Nicholas Penny’s defence of current art restoration techniques is baffling (LRB, 11 February). While admitting that ‘destructive restoration’ was often the responsibility of ‘much-vaunted scientific techniques’, and that ‘something is lost’ in every restoration, he nonetheless claims that better advice is to be had from ‘laboratory scientists and archival historians’ than from artists or ‘today’s “man of taste" ’. It is hard to see why this should be thought to be so. Evidence from a laboratory might tell a curator what a substance is, but not what its purpose was. The archival historian might discover how much a painting cost, or by whom it was commissioned, but not what it looked like. Such gleanings, however interesting, provide no basis for any intervention, let alone for the radical and destructive interventions currently in vogue.

The present dependency culture (of historians on conservation scientists) is proving highly debilitating. Dr Penny says, for example, that he ‘knows few art historians … who believe that a mistake was made in the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling’. So much the worse for them – one was, and art historians should have been the first to spot it. Numerous shadows applied with glue-size paint have been removed from figures on the ceiling. Without offering any evidence, today’s restorers have claimed that this painting was the work of restorers over a century after the ceiling’s completion. But the now-missing shadows were recorded in copies made by Michelangelo’s contemporaries within a few years of the unveiling and long before any restorers were hired. I have repeatedly drawn attention to this fact in the newspaper and art magazine articles to which Dr Penny refers. No art historian has ever disputed this evidence. Why, then, is its clear import not accepted? Do all historians share Dr Penny’s apparent belief that the ‘evidence of microscopic examination’ cited by the Vatican’s restorers, in defence of their own actions, somehow neutralises the artistic and documentary record of Michelangelo’s peers? Or do they believe that all of Michelangelo’s copyists had decided that his figures were insufficiently sculptural and had accordingly, and in unison, added shadows of their own – shadows, moreover, which somehow anticipated perfectly those now alleged to have been added to the ceiling by later restorers?

Penny claims that polemics against the restoration which appeal to ideas of chiaroscuro are a ‘misunderstanding’. But a misunderstanding of what? The ceiling was praised precisely for its unprecedentedly dramatic chiaroscuro. This is a matter of record – are today’s historians ignorant of this fact? Some of them, like Dr Penny, have, contrarily, praised as ‘revelation’ the newly-emerged ‘colourism’ of the work, for which not a single contemporary corroboration is to be found. What kind of scholarship is this? It purports to be scientific yet ignores profuse artistic and documentary evidence. It accepts without reservation technical evidence that is strikingly at variance with other technical accounts. A recorded examination of the ceiling in the 19th century found that the glue-painting could only have been Michelangelo’s because it had been applied when the ceiling was brand-new and not yet cracked – no glue had run into the cracks, the glue-paint had cracked with the plaster. It is a matter of record that the ceiling had cracked before any restorers were hired. Do historians have any grounds for rejecting the implications of this technical testimony? If not, why do they persist in denigrating critics of the restoration? And why do they continue to support a cleaning long after the restorers themselves have abandoned their controversial methods and substances?

Michael Daley
Artwatch International, East Barnet, Hertfordshire

After more than fifty years of the National Gallery authorities denying that the Gallery’s paintings were at risk, and in the face of the latest conservation research findings to the contrary, the National Gallery Renaissance curator Dr Nicholas Penny somewhat nonchalantly admits that ‘something is lost, however much is gained by any intervention – some possibility of interpretation, if not some actual pigment or glaze or polish.’ This should focus our attention back onto the National Gallery’s cleaning methods which, in the meantime, have been exported to other galleries and museums worldwide.

The damaging effects of solvents are reported in the August 1992 edition of Studies in Conservation. Twenty to 30 per cent (sometimes up to 50 per cent) of the substance of oil paint may be ‘leached out’ by solvents. The potential damage to paintings, both immediate and long-term, is of very serious proportions. ‘The immediate result of leaching,’ says the report, ‘is shrinkage of the medium by up to 50 per cent in volume which can lead to cracking … The swelling nature of most solvents is itself a cause for concern. The oil medium will attempt to swell in all directions but can only freely do so outwards … On drying the loss of any soluble material may lead to the formation of inaccessible voids in the film. Such voids near the surface could result in optical problems, e.g. blanching.’ The ultimate danger is spelled out clearly: ‘Solvents can leach out certain components from a dried oil film. These components act as plasticisers … The paint layers will become more prone to cracking and delamination.’

For any particular painting then the question must be: what is gained by intervention (‘cleaning’) to offset the possibility of such high costs? Any acceptable answer must be found by applying satisfactory conservation principles. In Penny’s hands we find no such comfort. The two principles enunciated by Penny, even in their over-simplified formulation, are not applied by him to particular cases when they arise, or if they are applied, it is without due consideration for the consequences of his argument, let alone for his practice at the Gallery. The two principles given are: ‘First, will it [the method of cleaning and conserving a work of art] be good for the work, will it improve its chances of survival? Second, will it enable us to see the work more clearly as the artist intended – will it be closer to its original condition?’ Penny ignores the second principle and invokes familiarity to explain the acceptance of a new nose on an old bust. Yet clearly his question – ‘Do you remove from an ancient Roman marble bust a nose which was given to it in the 18th century?’ – has an affirmative answer according to the second principle of the artist’s intentions. It is not, as he asserts, simply a question of ‘tact and presentation’.

Susan Wilsmore
University of Hertfordshire

Nationalising English

Your correspondents in the last issue overlook Patrick Parrinder’s valuable insight that good English, ‘whether or not it is strictly based on today’s Standard’, should be the aim (Letters, 25 February). The most useful English, assessing it as a medium of communication (and what else is it for?), has the richest and widest vocabulary and the clearest and most logical rules of grammar. Richness is enhanced by allusions that require knowledge to catch. (This may be knowledge of Caesar’s Gallic Wars or an early instalment of Neighbours, but the former is likely to be more interesting.) On regional dialects, we need to distinguish bad from neutral features. The Cockney’s ‘he ain’t done nothing to nobody’ is bad because the literal contradicts the intended meaning. The Lancastrian’s short ‘a’ is neutral in relation to the RP speaker’s long ‘a,’ or perhaps superior (my Liverpudlian father used to jeer: ‘there’s no “r" in bath’).

Spelling became fixed in the 18th century to aid communication. The OED records 31 different spelling of ‘merry’ from the ninth century onwards; only two are permitted now (one of these only in certain combinations). Misspelling is objectionable because it checks the flow of communication. A friction-causing consequence of standardisation has been what The Oxford Companion to the English Language calls ‘spelling pronunciation’. Old pronunciations are lost because they differ from a recently-adopted standard spelling. Oxford’s River Charwell is pronounced ‘Charwell’ by knowledgeable dons and very old Oxfordshire countryfolk, but most people follow the current spelling. My 18th-century map by Isaac Taylor spells it ‘Charwell’.

One can deploy the Tower of Babel argument to defend use of Standard English. It is not many years since most people encountered throughout life only people speaking in the dialect they spoke themselves. Now, via radio and television, we are expected daily to comprehend dozens of different dialects. Standard English gives relief from this. De Quincey complained in 1823: ‘On this Babel of an earth … there are said to be about three thousand languages and jargons.’ If within each language there are dozens of dialects then human sanity cries out for standardisation.

Francis Bennion

Dahmer’s Karma

A propos of Jenny Diski’s review of The Shrine of Jeffrey Dahmer (LRB, 11 February), it is worth considering the male urge to have an effect. Men want to see, in the look and the actions of another, evidence that they have the total attention of that other. One might think that Dahmer – murderer, dismemberer, necrophiliac – was not aspiring to this whole engagement, acting as he was upon corpses. Even when he was with men who seemed willing to have sexual relations with him, we are told, he preferred to drug them into insensibility rather than couple with conscious people.

I suggest that he proceeded from an inability to cope with the disappointment of perceived inattention during a sexual encounter with a conscious partner. Even if he had been able to believe that he was receiving the total attention of such a partner while they were together, he was unable to accept the letdown of the end of an episode, the moment when the partner, by leaving, demonstrated an engagement with a world beyond him. Drug the man, however, and there is no danger of him committing any act of inattention while he stays. Kill him and not only is there no such danger but also he will never leave. The light that glowed in his eyes for Dahmer alone goes out, the actions that served Dahmer alone stop, but his mind and body will no longer wander.

Even so, there is still, for such as Dahmer, this problem, stated by de Sade: ‘Murder takes away only the first life from the individual whom we strike; one ought to be able to tear the second from it.’ Sade, militant atheist, was not referring – or so Camus commented in L’Homme révolté – to the elusiveness of the immortal soul, but to the unstoppable mulch of nature. Kill as one might, Camus wrote, ‘the tortured bodies return by way of their constituent elements to nature where life is reborn. Murder is not completed.’ A killer such as Dahmer may struggle against his failure to keep the desired object in attendance on him – a failure made evident by deliquescence of the physical remains. In doing so, he visits not only sexual action, but also ritual arrangement and cannibalism, on the remains.

As for the desire to ingest the qualities of others by eating their flesh, notice that, in some societies, the most sought-after flesh has been that of the bravest enemies, those whose resistance to conquest and death was greatest, and therefore those whose engagement with the conqueror and consumer was the most convincing.

Robert del Quiaro
London SW12

Jeffrey Dahmer performed irrumation, not fellatio.

K.A. Rockwell
Marion, North Carolina


Proust’s amazing hymn of praise to the asparagus at Combray is misquoted, either by the author or by the reviewer, in the last issue of the London Review. The passage, almost half-way through Du Côté de chez Swann, comprises a good dozen lines of complex and florid prose.

It begins with a detailed description of the appearance of the asparagus and ends with reference to cette essence précieuse que je reconnaissais encore quand, toute la nuit qui suivait un dîner où j’en avais mangé, elles jouaient, dans leurs farces poétiques et grossières comme une féerie de Shakespeare, à changer mon pot de chambre en un vase de parfum. Admire it or not, this is essentially Proustian. The words qui parfumait mon pot de chambre are not.

Dorothy Bell

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences